UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is a legally independent specialised agency of the United Nations with headquarters in Paris.
It has the widest remit of any agency in the UN system, encompassing mandates for the areas of education, science, culture, and – since 1990 – communication and information. It has 195 Member States.
Some 2,100 people work at the Secretariat in Paris and the Field Offices. Since 15 November 2017, UNESCO has been led by Director-General Audrey Azoulay. A French national, she is the second woman to head UNESCO.
UNESCO was initiated with the aim of establishing intercultural dialogue in the areas of education, science, and culture, and thereby creating a foundation for world peace. In 1990, UNESCO’s responsibilities were expanded to include communication and information.
The founding idea of UNESCO is proclaimed in the Preamble to its Constitution: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” The Constitution was signed by 37 countries in London on 16 November 1945.
Today the organization understands itself as a think tank and a laboratory of ideas. Along with gathering and providing information in the areas relevant to UNESCO, it also sets standards for global agreements on ethical matters.
UNESCO’s work is oriented to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in particular to combatting poverty, making basic education available to all, and attaining gender equality and sustainable development.
UNESCO’s origins date back to the Second World War. At a conference in Britain in 1942, the Allied education ministers met to consider how educational systems and cultural institutions could be rebuilt in times of peace.
Numerous other countries later joined in this consideration process, and in November 1945 they laid the foundation for an educational, scientific and cultural organization oriented towards peace.
A year later, in November 1946, the UNESCO Constitution entered into force. The first countries to ratify it were Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America. The first General Conference took place the same year.
The Federal Republic of Germany joined UNESCO in 1951, followed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1972. With German unification on 3 October 1990, the two countries were also combined into one UNESCO Member State.
As a UN specialised agency, UNESCO pursues the overarching objectives of the United Nations. Decision-making about medium-term strategy, specific programming, and the budget is in the hands of the 193 Member States.
UNESCO's range of programmes
UNESCO has the broadest remit of any agency of the United Nations. It includes biosphere reserves and the well-known World Heritage Sites, as well as adult education and the restitution of cultural property that was illicitly appropriated during war.
In total, there are five programme sectors: education, culture, the natural sciences, the social and human sciences and communication and information. Africa and gender equality are current areas of focus, which are reflected in all of UNESCO’s programmes and Projects.